I’m Not Buying It

My favorite comic is the one where Dilbert is pointing to a number like 7,345,897 on a slide and saying that he did not have any real numbers so he just made some up because statistics show that numbers you make up are just as good as real ones. A member of the audience asks how many studies have shown that and he immediately responds, “87”.

The truth is, I don’t remember if the actual numbers were 7,345,897 and 87. See, it works!

In an unsavory combination of pseudo-intellectual bullying and hucksterism, there seem to be a lot of numbers thrown around lately that I am just not buying. Here is one I read in several contexts, including forum discussions on what all small businesses must do, a business coaching site (which I was never quite clear, even after a careful reading what they actually would coach us to do) and spam emails about the latest product/ service I must buy. They all said,

“And if you don’t do this, you will FAIL and be unemployed because there are 1.2 billion Indians and 1.3 billion Chinese who are working harder and have more technological expertise.”

There are some really smart people in India and China, I’m sure, but I was a bit skeptical about whether all 1.2 billion people in India were out for my job. I thought I would check some actual statistics.

Just as I suspected, it turns out that there are old people and children in India! In fact, 30.5% of Indians are under 15, so they are not going to be finished graduate school until after I retire. Another 5% are over 65, and while some no doubt work still work, I’m going to guess half are unable or unwilling. This reduces the figure by a third to a still considerable 800,000.

I’m required to be fairly literate for my work and the literacy rate in India is variously reported to be 61 – 65%. This brings down the number of people out for my job to 500,000,000 or so, which is still a lot but also a lot less than 1.2 billion.

Most of the work I have done over the years has required a Ph.D. or at a minimum a masters and 5-10 years of experience. Let’s just give shouting business coach guy and the spam people the benefit of the doubt and say that at least an adequate job could be done by a really good college graduate.

Wikipedia, usually a more trustworthy source than random people on a forum calling me a fat lazy American, says that the very well-respected Indian Institutes of Technology enroll about 8,000 students annually. That is a very far cry from 1.2 billion, and I’m guessing some of those students want to go to graduate school, teach at universities in India and do other stuff than take anyone American’s job.

According to research by Vivek Wadhwa, when we hear that India graduates 600,000 or a 1,000,000 or 1.2 billion engineers a year, it just flat is not true. Yes, there are a lot of people who graduate with a diploma that says engineering on it somewhere. However, he says, that is similar to if we counted as an engineer everyone who has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from MIT, a two-year associate of science degree, a certificate from DeVry Institute, an Information Systems Management degree from the University of Phoenix or a Social Media certification from the American Institute of Social Media. I believe I just made up that last one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to really exist.

Yes, we face international competition more than in the past, both because it is easier to outsource work due to technological advances and because their own educational progress has made some countries more competitive.

However, I think that the assertion that every one of the 1.2 billion men, women, elementary school children, new born babies and grandmas is a direct competitor for a high-level technical career is an estimate that is off by about 400,000%.

Ironically, the last one may turn out to be the closest number to accurate in this whole post.

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